If you listen closely, you can almost hear the sound of the looms determinedly clacking away. Strolling through the Bates Mill on a quiet morning, one is tempted to imagine what it was like in 1945, when thousands of people put in a full day’s work in this Lewiston landmark.
Although the era in which the Bates, Hill, Androscoggin and Pepperell mills reigned supreme has vanished, many firsthand mill memories remain fresh, unfaded and indelibly powerful.
“If you had an old pair of overalls on starting at seven o’clock in the morning, by three o’clock in the afternoon, they were soaking wet,” said Gerard Lafrance, a veteran worker who can vividly recall the overheated atmosphere inside Bates Mill on a sweltering summer day.
“You couldn’t have air-conditioning because in the weave room, we had to have moisture content on the cotton; otherwise, the yarn would snap. The moisture was awful, but you needed it. So, they had all these special spray heads all over the room.”
“I did almost everything,” said Lafrance, who started in the weave room, where he worked as weaver, a fixer and an inspector before transferring to the dye house. Then he worked in the lab. “They sent me back to school because they thought I could be a good colorist. I guess I have a good eye for colors. So, they sent me to a little technical institute in Lowell, Massachusetts.”
When he retired in 1989, as superintendent of dyeing and finishing, Lafrance, at age 62, had worked at the mill 47 years.
Lafrance’s memories and the recollections of dozens of his former colleagues are now being collected and preserved as part of the Mill Workers Oral History Project. This multifaceted undertaking is being overseen by Rachel DesGrosseilliers, executive director of Museum L-A, an extensive archive housed in the Bates Mill complex.
“Very shortly, that whole generation is going to be gone,” DesGrosseilliers said of the mill workers, noting that many are either in fragile health or an advanced age. “I mean, all of their vast knowledge will have completely disappeared, and these people truly built the community. If we don’t get that history now, we’re going to have a lot of important pieces missing.”
In 1996, local attorney Elliott Epstein began gathering some of those irreplaceable pieces by founding Museum L-A, with the intention of preserving and exhibiting key items from Lewiston-Auburn’s booming industrial age.
Eight years later, DesGrosseilliers was brought on board. Today, in the museum’s warehouse-sized space, she presides over a collection that includes a Bates-issued bedspread commemorating the 1969 lunar landing, an assortment of wooden shoe lasts and an enormous Toledo scale once used for weighing cotton.
Creative, proud people
“We tend to think of the mills as being very dirty, loud places, and you’d think people must have hated to work in them,” said DesGrosseilliers. “However, everybody we interviewed speaks about their work with so much pride. … The creativity that these people had was amazing. If they needed a tool or a piece of equipment that didn’t exist, they would invent it and actually make it in the machine shop.”
In 2004, DesGrosseilliers was a guiding force behind the Mill Workers Reunion. “We hoped to have about 200 people attend and, instead, about 540 former mill workers showed up,” she said.
Inspired by the turnout, DesGrosseilliers and Bates College oral historian Andrea L’Hommedieu recognized the historical value in rescuing many of the remembrances shared at the reunion.
“We started talking about how important it would be to do an oral history,” said L’Hommedieu. “Rachel and I sat down and wrote a grant together proposing an oral history project consisting of an initial 30 interviews and we received funding for that.” Financial support arrived in the form of a $10,000 state-subsidized New Century Grant as well as further assistance from the Maine Development Foundation and the Maine Arts Commission. Bates College sponsored the project by providing L’Hommedieu with office space and equipment for filing and duplication. Endowments secured, the process of determining which millworkers would be interviewed began.
“We started with a fairly general set of questions,” L’Hommedieu said. “I began by asking things that we would really like to know about in terms of their life and work. We try to get some family background on everyone, including information on where they grew up. Were they immigrants from Canada? In terms of how we chose the people that we interviewed, we tried to get a variety. We wanted to balance men and women and represent different ethnic groups.”
DesGrosseilliers also suggested that subjects be culled from a wide range of mill personnel. “We’re trying to cover as many different aspects of the mill experience as we can,” said DesGrosseilliers. “We’re not only talking to management but also weavers, loom fixers, somebody from the machine shops, somebody from the bleachery. We’re really trying to get a good mixture.”
Included in that mix is Lewiston native Lucille Barrett, who began her mill career as World War II was drawing to a close. Barrett was employed first as a stitcher and later as an office clerk. In 1972, she was elected to serve as the Bates Mill union president, a post she held for the next decade. “I was there for a couple of negotiation contracts and the company was pretty good at it,” Barrett recalled. “They understood the plight of the people – what they wanted and what they needed. I really think they did their best for us.”
Photos speak volumes
Like her fellow oral history participants, Barrett was photographed after her interview by Mark Silber, a documentary photographer and an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Maine’s L-A College. “In this particular project, what I have tried to do is record the environment of the person,” Silber explained. “The majority of the photographs have been taken in people’s kitchens and living rooms, and it’s a very interesting negotiation regarding how people want to be portrayed.”
“Whether you want to show a house that is absolutely immaculate in how it’s arranged or a house that is messy because a person is too busy to clean it or doesn’t care about that – all of that really defines a person’s aesthetic as well as the person’s cultural milieu,” said Silber. “I used to be a photo-journalist. Sometimes I like motion and sometimes I like the person just looking at the camera because, oftentimes, just looking at the camera can convey even more than the motion or the impromptu or a photograph of the moment.”
“Taking portraits of a group of people with a common theme gives you an opportunity to see the whole portrait. It’s almost like a sociological or anthropological study. You’re looking at commonalties and differences between people – what kinds of things they take pride in, the kind of things that they have accomplished and what they want to be remembered for,” Silber said.
DesGrosseilliers sought out Silber after seeing his contributions to “Sumner 200: Portrait of a Small Maine Town,” a visually rich volume Silber published in 1998. “What people express most is a feeling about the work they have put in,” Silber said of the millworkers he has photographed. “It was very hard (work). The rewards were minimal, but these people accomplished a great deal. … We always feel better if there is something to show for our work, and for them, it is what they left behind and that is their children.”
DesGrosseilliers and her collaborators hope to eventually create a Web site devoted to the Mill Workers Oral History Project. There have also been discussions about publishing a book as well as taking the written and visual histories on tour across the country as part of a traveling exhibit.
“I think the story of the millworkers is fascinating,” said L’Hommedieu. “It really tells us about their work ethic and this strong sense of family, which is universal. I think it also tells us a lot about Lewiston-Auburn. So, it will certainly hold a special sort of significance to people in this community.”
For DesGrosseilliers, whose own father labored in the mills for 38 years, the project has been especially illuminating. “It wasn’t until I actually started delving into it that I realized how important all of this was to our community. We’re going to end up with one of the most complete histories of the industrial revolution in New England,” she said. “Many of these people are humble and don’t like to talk about themselves, but they’re willing to do it because it’s going to help our future generations.”